Feb. 15, 1961] Variable Stars (March 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction

I want to tell you about this month’s “All Star” issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but I’m too busy tapping my heels to a groovy new song I was just turned on to.  Last year, I thought the instrumental group, The Ventures, were The End, but after hearing the new disc from The Shadows, Apache, I may have to change my vote.  Is it too late to rejoin with England?

Back to our show.  Every year or so, Fantasy and Science Fiction releases an “All Star” issue in which only Big Names get published.  It’s a sort of guarantee of quality (and, presumably, sales).  I’ll tell you right now that, with the notable exception of the lead novelette, it’s largely an “All Three Star” issue.  Perhaps it’s better to leave things to the luck of the draw.  That said, it’s hardly an unworthy read, and Zenna Henderson, as always, makes the issue a must buy.

Ms. Henderson is best known for her stories of The People, now spanning a decade of publication, and to be released on March 17 of this year as a compilation anthology!  The People are humans from another world, with the ability to do all manner of psychic tricks that look to us Outsiders as akin to magic.  Henderson’s stories are generally bittersweet tales of misfit refugees from the stars attempting to make do on a primitive, often unfriendly, but nevertheless beautiful world.

Last time we saw The People, in F&SF two years ago, the Earthbound had finally been rediscovered by their star-dwelling brethren, and many had elected to return to more familiar surroundings.  But many also chose to stay in their adoptive home.  In Return, one of the People who left, Debbie, yearns to go back to Earth.  Her homesickness becomes a palpable thing, and weeks before her baby is to be born, she convinces her new husband, Thann, to make the journey back to Earth to live with her kind there.

Things don’t go as planned.  There is now a lake in the valley where the People had made their home.  Debbie and Thann crash land, the latter dying soon after.  What follows is a beautiful story of a lost, lonely, somewhat selfish woman on the eve of motherhood, and the old human couple that offers her shelter.  It’s a lovely complete story arc of a woman’s maturation impelled by crisis–the kind of story only a woman (a remarkable one like Ms. Henderson) could give us.  Five stars.

The rest of the magazine, while never bad, never lives up to the standard of that first story.

Jay Williams, writer of the Danny Dunn franchise (which I quite enjoy) has a slight, if evocatively bitter piece, about a murderous man who gets his comeuppance after doing away with a romantic rival.  It’s called The Beetle, and it’s strong but not novel.  Two stars.

Saturn Rising is a pleasant nuts-and-bolts piece from one of the fathers of modern science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke.  A teen builds his own telescope, espies Saturn in all its ringed glory, and then his father cruelly breaks the instrument.  The youth grows up to become a wealthy hotel magnate, but that first-hand glimpse of a celestial body remains the seed for an undying dream–to build a resort in full view of the sixth planet.  I visited a telescope store today, and the story made a fitting tale with which to regale my daughter as she perused the reflectors and refractors.  Three stars.

John Wyndham offers up a time travel tale in A Stitch in Time wherein an old woman, spending her last years in the same home in which she was raised, is at last reunited with her high school beaux–some 50 years late for a date.  It’s nicely written, and who doesn’t have a space where time seems to have stood still for decades, in which, at any time, some memory might resurrect itself?  And yet, it’s a thin idea despite the fine characterization.  Three stars.

I quite enjoyed Dr. Asimov’s The Imaginary that Wasn’t, all about “imaginary numbers”, i.e. multiples of the square root of negative one.  Not only is a cogent description of their origin and utility (though he never mentions electric circuits, in which they are invaluable), but the anecdote in the beginning is priceless: Some 20 years ago, Isaac showed up a smug philosophy teacher with his mathematical knowledge, earning the latter’s rancor forever.  Said teacher asserted that mathematicians were mystics for they believed in imaginary numbers, which have “no reality.”

Asimov contended that imaginary numbers were just as real as any other.  The teacher pounced.  “Show me a piece of chalk that has the length of the square root of negative one.”  Asimov replied that he would–provided the teacher gave him a one-half piece of chalk.  The professor promptly broke a piece in half and handed it to Asimov in triumph.  What ensues, Asimov describes thusly:

“Ah, but wait,” I said: “you haven’t fulfilled your end. This is one piece of chalk you’ve handed me, not a one-half piece.”  I held it up for the others to see.  “Wouldn’t you all say this was one piece of chalk?  It certainly isn’t two or three.”

Now the professor was smiling.  “Hold it. One piece of chalk is a piece of regulation length. You have one that’s half the regulation length.”  I said, “Now you’re springing an arbitrary definition on me.  But even if I accept it, are you willing to maintain that this is a one-half piece of chalk and not a 0.48 piece or a 0.52 piece?  And can you really consider yourself qualified to discuss the square root of minus one, when you’re a little hazy on the meaning of one-half?”  But by now the professor had lost his equanimity altogether and his final argument was unanswerable. He said, “Get the hell out of here!”

This parallels my experience, also some 20 years ago, when I showed up a smug anthropology professor.  He, trying to shock his students with an amoral argument, asserted that cannibalism was abandoned simply because it was economically inefficient, not for any cultural reasons.  I decided to call his bet and pointed out that raising any meat is inefficient–if we really liked the taste of people, we’d still be eating them.  The teacher made it clear that I was not welcome in his class.  Why do instructors never recognize the genius of their students?

Four stars, from one smart-mouth to another.

Philip J. Farmer’s Prometheus takes up most of the rest of the issue.  This is the sequel to A Father to the Stars starring the corrigible Father Carmody, an ex-con cum hapless priest…with an alien egg symbiotically stuck to his chest.  In this new story, Carmody goes to the planet of the horowitzes, a sentient but uncultured race, one member of which expregnated the monk.  A much more serious story, it depicts Carmody’s attempts to enlighten the horowitzes by bringing them language, technology, science, and ultimately, religion.  Three stars because, while it was fun reading, I never got the impression that the putatively alien horowitzes were anything other than feathered people.  Moreover, the profundity of the final revelation was insufficiently profound.

Against my better judgment, I am distributing the Ferdinand Feghoot pun of the month.  Perhaps I’ll make it “a thing.” 

Wrapping up the issue is John Berry’s very short The One Who Returns, a subtle story about a priest who is educated in the true faith by an Indian lama, and the measures another member of the flock goes to so as to avoid seduction by the compelling heresy.  Four stars.

Three and a half stars overall.  Respectable, but not what I’d expect from an “All Star” issue. 

9 thoughts on “Feb. 15, 1961] Variable Stars (March 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction

  1. On the whole, I think your musical discovery is better than the literary offering. I understand the marketing reasons for an issue devoted to known names, but really they could have sought out a better selection. Perhaps they should make up for it with a “New Voices” issue.

    I enjoy Zenna Henderson’s work a great deal, especially her tales of the People, but I find I can only read them in small doses. This is a fine example, though.

    The least said about “The Beetle”, the better. Mr. Williams should leave the existentialism to Camus and Sartre. It’s also been a bad month for insect stories, hasn’t it? But if you like Danny Dunn, see if you can track down the Dig Allen stories by Joseph Greene. There have been two thus far, The Forgotten Star and Captives in Space, though I understand there’s another coming out sometime this year.

    Clarke really doesn’t do poignant all that well. This is a sound effort, but hardly his best work.

    Out of all the Feghoots, this is the one you decide to reprint? One of Mr. Betnor’s weakest efforts.

    Now I think I’ll run down to the record shop to see if they have more from The Shadows.

  2. Although I cannot fault at all your praise of Zenna Henderson, who always seems to know exactly how to avoid sentimentality while portraying true emotion, my personal favorite in this issue was “The One Who Returns.”  (An interesting coincidence of titles in the two best stories in the issue.) I believe the author also had a similar story a while back that was my favorite.  As I think I have said before, I’m a sucker for “literary” stories that are just barely borderline fantasy.

    1. That’s fair–I liked the Berry a lot, too.  I appreciate a subtle story that gives you all of the clues but makes you do a little dot-connecting.

      But (re: Henderson) I’ve never seen a story where a pregnant woman was the protagonist, and I appreciated her development.  It was well-drawn and plausible even in such a short space.  That’s why Zenna gets the nod.

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